Every game this season has been a test for the Dolphins' offensive line.
Strike that, every day has been a test for the Dolphins' offensive line during the 2013 season.
But on Sunday, the toughest test will await an offensive line that has had trouble allowing the team to run the football while giving up 41 sacks through 10 games.
That test: the Carolina Panthers' front seven, whose improved play in 2013 is one of the main reasons why the Panthers currently sit at 7-3, only one-and-a-half games behind the New Orleans Saints in the NFC South.
This Panthers defensive front is partly responsible for a defense that has only allowed an average of 84.5 rushing yards per game (good for third in the league). They are also ranked fifth in the NFL in passing defense, ninth in sacks and have a plus-10 turnover differential (which is second in the league).
If you were to put together a defensive front that could stop the Dolphins, it wouldn't be very hard to in 2013. But if you wanted to put together a defensive front that ranks among the best in the league, the Carolina Panthers would be it.
Like most good defensive fronts, it starts up the middle with Carolina—defensive tackles Dwan Edwards and rookie Star Lotulelei anchor the defensive line with middle linebacker Luke Kuechly right behind the two.
You will see here against the San Francisco 49ers how this pressure up the middle works.
On this play you will see the Panther's front four occupy San Francisco's offensive line (one of the better offensive lines in the NFL). To add to this, you have linebacker Thomas Davis (on your right) going in to rush the backfield as well, and San Francisco's line also has to account for the Panther's second level.
The result: a good offensive line and one of the most mobile read-option quarterbacks in the NFL giving up one of six sacks on the afternoon.
Repeat: The San Francisco 49ers, a team that runs the ball more than they pass and has a mobile quarterback as well as a good offensive line, allowed six sacks to the Carolina Panthers.
If you're a Dolphins fan, you're probably thinking that they're in trouble. That was one of many looks that the Panthers can beat you with up the middle, which also opens up lanes for Carolina's defensive ends Charles Johnson (who has 8.5 sacks this season) and Greg Hardy (currently sitting on six sacks).
Luckily for the Dolphins, Carolina might be without Charles Johnson on Sunday. According to Joseph Person of The Charlotte Observer, Johnson is week-to-week with a sprained MCL and will likely miss the game against the Dolphins.
That doesn't make this challenge any easier for Miami, as Carolina's scheme and the other personnel along the front line still make this Miami's toughest challenge in the trenches all season.
How can Miami counter this fearsome front? One suggestion would be to use the same strategy used against Cincinnati when the Dolphins would line up six linemen (reporting one as eligible) along the line.
However, with the dwindling depth at the position and the loss of Will Yeatman for the season last week, it will be a tough order for Miami, whose offensive line reserves are down to the never-used Dallas Thomas and Danny Watkins.
Both players are better suited as guards, which would make such an idea even tougher.
Play-calling will also have to be as close to perfect as humanly possible. Despite some advances in that on Sunday against San Diego, you can't exactly count on Mike Sherman to come up with a second consecutive well-called game even though every Dolphins fan would want him to.
However, the good news for the Dolphins is there is some relief from taking snaps out of the shotgun, but Miami must also run the ball out of the shotgun formation to be successful.
Finally getting rid of the "Go, Go-Go" cadence would also be a capital idea, but if they haven't done that in 10 games, it looks like it will never happen.
Sadly for the Dolphins, it won't get any easier in the trenches, for their next opponent is the New York Jets—a team whose front seven rivals Carolina in talent and success but not scheme (the Panthers run a 4-3 while the Jets continue to run a 3-4).
But if the Dolphins' offensive line can perform well against Carolina's top flight front, they should be able to take on any defensive line in the NFL.
On this week's Dolphins Central Radio, Thomas welcomes Dave Hyde of The Sun-Sentinel and Orlando Alzugaray of 640 WMEN-AM as they discuss the goings on with the Dolphins on and off the field.
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